James Finch needed a new career when he retired from the Navy in 2012 after 21 years.

Given his family’s background in heating and air conditioning, it wasn’t a question of what field to choose. Finch just needed the knowledge to make it work.

He found it at Tidewater Community College. He will graduate on May 14 with an Associate of Applied Science in Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration.

In addition to his degree, Finch, 42, has earned an industry-recognized credential, an EPA-approved certification in handling refrigerants. He is working toward his master tradesman license in electrical, thanks to taking additional courses in wiring.

“Basically you know how to do everything after you get out of the HVAC program,” Finch said. “It’s designed for someone who doesn’t know anything coming in to learn. They start with the basics and go all the way through everything.”

The Chesapeake resident is among the college’s first graduates in the HVAC/R associate degree program, which was introduced in Fall 2014.

The 68-credit program, with hands-on labs at the Portsmouth Campus, prepares students for careers as technicians in the areas of service, maintenance and installation.

TCC is one of only three community colleges in Virginia to offer an associate program, and it is the only one that allows students to specialize.

Finch chose the residential specialization; the others are commercial, weatherization, supervision and energy management. He and an associate, Scott Murray, started Affordable Heating & Cooling in 2013 in Chesapeake.

Using his GI Bill, he graduated from TCC without student debt, finishing with a 3.98 GPA.

James Finch in his own words

In addition to the HVAC/R foundation he gained at the college, he’s also grateful for having a ready resource in the field should he have a question while he’s out on the job.

Program head Harlan “Skip” Krepcik is on the board of directors for the Refrigeration Service Engineers Society, the professional leader in training and education for professional HVAC/R technicians and contractors. Most faculty currently work in the field, and all are up to date on industry standards.

Finch took classes with Krepcik and considers instructor Chris Fairbanks one of his mentors.

“Every tradesman needs a go-to guy if you have a problem,” he said. “For me that’s Skip and Chris.”

As HVAC/R is among the fastest growing career areas, jobs are readily available.

Finch recommends the TCC program to anyone with an interest who is ready to put in the time necessary to succeed.

“It takes a lot of self-investment and reading on your own,” he said. “Basically if you’re interested in it, you’ll do well.”